Castleford Tigers v Warrington Wolves: Sneyd key as Tigers left with no margin for error

Castleford Tigers' Marc Sneyd
Castleford Tigers' Marc Sneyd
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COMETH the hour, cometh the man or, more pertinently in Daryl Powell’s case, please cometh an all-conquering half-back.

The Castleford Tigers head coach freely admits he has a major decision to make ahead of tonight’s all-or-nothing play-off contest with Warrington Wolves.

If his side lose, their season is over. If they win, they are just 80 minutes from a maiden Grand Final. There is, then, simply no margin for error.

The difficulty is that Castleford, so vibrant and free-flowing for much of a seminal year, are now stuttering, straight-jacketed and their confidence seemingly shattered by three significant defeats over the last month.

Friday’s 41-0 humiliation at League Leaders’ Shield winners St Helens, in a qualifying play-off, was perhaps the most damning.

A week earlier, they had stumbled in Perpignan to miss out on top spot themselves and, of course, there was the Challenge Cup final loss against Leeds Rhinos in August.

It was at Wembley that Marc Sneyd – the prolific goal-kicking stand-off who has rightly earned such praise during his season-long loan from Salford Red Devils – was surprisingly ‘hooked’ after just 25 minutes.

He was not having his greatest game but, still, it is rare for such a pivotal player to be replaced at all let alone in the first half.

Sneyd insisted afterwards that he was not surprised by Powell’s decision to take him off. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old has struggled for form since, particularly in the loss at Catalan, and was omitted entirely for the debacle at Saints when Powell paired Liam Finn with Jamie Ellis.

But now the coach has to pin his faith in two of those three for the most important game of their remarkable year and find a way of rediscovering earlier fluency.

“We are trying to find our groove at the moment and half-backs are a massive part of that,” he admitted.

“We’re trying to find a combination that will work for us and we didn’t quite do that last week.”

Sneyd, whose ability in helping transform Castleford from 12th to fourth and Wembley finalists has prompted Hull FC to pay Salford £100,000 for his long-term services, must surely return.

For all his recent travails, he has been the club’s best half-back this term and has the talent to produce something out of nothing, a trait that might well be called upon against a Warrington team who, having rallied from 18-0 down to beat Widnes Vikings on Saturday, are intent on making a third successive Grand Final.

Furthermore, Sneyd’s service invariably brings the best out of Michael Shenton and Justin Carney, the left-sided partnership that has been such a force in 2014.

But, more crucially, his kicking game is paramount, too, not only for its quality but variety, something sorely missed at Saints where Castleford’s execution in that area was particularly poor.

Powell must be tempted to go with his ‘big’ players and Sneyd is undoubtedly one of those.

Likewise, it would be no surprise to see Daryl Clark straight back into the starting line-up.

The hooker, one of Super League’s top players and favourite to win its Young Player of the Year award, came off the bench last week and never truly got going.

Clark was outplayed by the comparative veteran James Roby who underlined why he is set to get the England shirt this autumn.

Like Sneyd, Clark has struggled of late, in particular since his £185,000 move to Warrington next season was confirmed in the days after that Wembley defeat.

But Powell needs him to fire tonight and bring some of the dazzle that has made him such a hero on the Wheldon Road terraces.

As with Sneyd, Craig Huby, Ellis and Weller Hauraki, it will be the 21-year-old’s final appearance there before leaving and, more than ever, Castleford require a dynamic show especially given the calibre of nines he is again facing: Michael Monaghan – the retiring Australian he replaces at Warrington – and Mickey Higham.

There is a lot of “ifs and buts” about Castleford’s chances of progressing this evening and let us not forget this is only their second play-off game in five years.

Powell has long been the Super League Coach of the Year-elect for the alchemy he has produced this term but, that said, mustering a performance now would perhaps be his biggest feat.

Often, top-four sides that lose their opening play-off also fail again with their second chance; Huddersfield, Catalan and Hull KR being all guilty of that recently.

But if Castleford need any reminding of their own class they only have to glimpse back to their meeting in April when the Tigers vanquished Warrington 40-6.

They may have looked jaded of late but they need one last lift to ensure their annus mirabilis does not peter out on a sour note.